Nav: Home

The stuff that planets are made of

October 09, 2018

Is there a second Earth out there in space? Our knowledge of planetary systems far, far away is increasing constantly, as new technologies continue to sharpen our gaze into space. To date, 3,700 planets have already been discovered outside our solar system. The planetary masses and radii of these exoplanets can be used to infer their mean density, but not their exact chemical composition and structure. The intriguing question about what these planets could look like is thus still open.

"Theoretically, we can assume various compositions, such as a world of pure water, a world of pure rock, and planets that have hydrogen-helium atmospheres and explore what radii are expected" explains Michael Lozovsky, a doctoral candidate in the group of Prof. Ravit Helled at the Institute for Computational Science at the University of Zurich.

Thresholds for planetary composition

Lozovsky and collaborators have used databases and statistical tools to characterize exoplanets and their atmospheres. These are fairly common and surrounded by a volatile layer of hydrogen and helium. However, the directly measured data previously didn't allow the researchers to determine the exact structure, since different compositions may lead to the same mass and radius. In addition to the accuracy of the data relating to mass and radius, the research team thus also investigated the assumed internal structure, temperature and reflected radiation in 83 of the 3,700 known planets, for which the masses and radii are well-determined.

"We used a statistical analysis to set limits on possible compositions. Using a database of detected exoplanets, we found that every theoretical planetary structure has a 'threshold radius', a planetary radius above which no planets of this composition exist," explains Michael Lozovsky. The amount of elements in the gaseous layer that are heavier than helium, the percentage of hydrogen and helium, as well as the distribution of elements in the atmosphere are important factors in determining the threshold radius.

Super-Earths and mini-Neptunes

The researchers from the Institute for Computational Science found that planets with a radius of up to 1.4 times that of Earth (6,371 kilometers) can be earth-like, i.e. they have a composition similar to Earth. Planets with radii above this threshold have a higher share of silicates or other light materials. Most of the planets with a radius above 1.6 radii of the Earth must have a layer of hydrogen-helium gas or water in addition to their rocky core, while those larger than 2.6 Earth radii can't be water worlds and therefore might be surrounded by an atmosphere. Planets with radii larger than 4 Earth radii are expected to be very gaseous and consist of at least 10 percent hydrogen and helium, similarly to Uranus and Neptune.

The findings of the study provide new insights into the development and diversity of these planets. One particularly interesting threshold concerns the difference between large terrestrial-like planets - otherwise known as super-Earths - and small gaseous planets, also referred to as mini-Neptunes. According to the researchers, this threshold lies at a radius of three times that of Earth. Below this threshold, it is therefore possible to find earth-like planets in the vast expanse of the galaxy.
-end-
Literature: M. Lozovsky, R. Helled, C. Dorn, and J. Venturini. Threshold Radii of Volatile-Rich Planets. Astrophysics. Astrophysical Journal. 9. October 2018, DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/aadd09

Contacts:
Michael Lozovsky
Institute for Computational Science (ICS)
University of Zurich
Phone +41 44 635 61 89
E-mail: michloz@mail.com

University of Zurich

Related Hydrogen Articles:

Hydrogen boride nanosheets: A promising material for hydrogen carrier
Researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology, University of Tsukuba, and colleagues in Japan report a promising hydrogen carrier in the form of hydrogen boride nanosheets.
World's fastest hydrogen sensor could pave the way for clean hydrogen energy
Hydrogen is a clean and renewable energy carrier that can power vehicles, with water as the only emission.
Chemical hydrogen storage system
Hydrogen is a highly attractive, but also highly explosive energy carrier, which requires safe, lightweight and cheap storage as well as transportation systems.
Observing hydrogen's effects in metal
Microscopy technique could help researchers design safer reactor vessels or hydrogen storage tanks.
The 'Batman' in hydrogen fuel cells
In a study published in Nature on Jan. 31, researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) report advances in the development of hydrogen fuel cells that could increase its application in vehicles, especially in extreme temperatures like cold winters.
Paving the way for more efficient hydrogen cars
Hydrogen-powered vehicles emit only water vapor from their tailpipes, offering a cleaner alternative to fossil-fuel-based transportation.
New catalyst produces cheap hydrogen
QUT chemistry researchers have discovered cheaper and more efficient materials for producing hydrogen for the storage of renewable energy that could replace current water-splitting catalysts.
The faint glow of cosmic hydrogen
A study published recently in Nature magazine, in which Ana Monreal-Ibero, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) is a participant, reveals the presence of a hitherto undetected component of the universe: large masses of gas surrounding distant galaxies.
New technology improves hydrogen manufacturing
INL researchers demonstrated high-performance electrochemical hydrogen production at a lower temperature than had been possible before.
Hydrogen transfer: One thing after the other
Hydride transfer is an important reaction for chemistry (e.g., fuel cells), as well as biology (e.g., respiratory chain and photosynthesis).
More Hydrogen News and Hydrogen Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#540 Specialize? Or Generalize?
Ever been called a "jack of all trades, master of none"? The world loves to elevate specialists, people who drill deep into a single topic. Those people are great. But there's a place for generalists too, argues David Epstein. Jacks of all trades are often more successful than specialists. And he's got science to back it up. We talk with Epstein about his latest book, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.